Laura's Law passed a decade ago. So why are counties adopting it now?

Laura's Law targets a very specific group: Mentally ill people who have landed in jail or hospitals, because of their condition.
Laura's Law targets a very specific group: Mentally ill people who have landed in jail or hospitals, because of their condition.

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Laura Wilcox – a 19-year-old volunteer at a Nevada County mental health clinic – was shot to death in January 2001 by a mentally ill man who refused medical treatment.

The following year, the state legislature passed Laura's Law, giving counties the authority to force certain people with severe mental illness to receive treatment.

The law targets a very specific group: mentally ill people who have landed in jail or hospitals because of their condition. It only applies to those who might be a danger to themselves or others because they don't recognize they need treatment.

The law is so narrowly focused, in fact, that Nick Wilcox, Laura's father, said the man who killed his daughter would not have been subject to the law because he had not previously been incarcerated or involuntarily hospitalized.

For years, only Nevada County, in Northern California, implemented the law.

"We thought we were mostly finished" when the state passed the law, Wilcox said. "But as it turns out, the fight had hardly begun."

Then this year, Orange and Yolo counties adopted it. San Francisco County signed on last week, and Los Angeles County unanimously approved it today.

So why now, more than 10 years later? What changed?

For one thing, funding was a major issue for many years. The original law did not come with a specific funding source. It also said counties could only use new funding for the program, said Dr. Roderick Shaner, medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.  He said counties could not use money that was already dedicated to voluntary treatment programs to fund Laura's Law.

"People knew that Laura's Law would save lives, the problem is that they were not 100 percent sure they had the monies in order to implement it," said Carla Jacobs, a longtime mental health advocate from Orange County.

But last year, the legislature clarified that counties can use funding from Proposition 63 – the Mental Health Services Act – to implement Laura's Law. That opened the door for other counties, Jacobs said.

"The clarification that funding that’s available to the counties for mental health treatment, could be used to implement [Assisted Outpatient Treatment] absolutely led to the fact that counties throughout the state have now voted to implement it, or are considering implementing it," Jacobs said.

The funding issue aside, the law has also been controversial.

Critics are concerned that treatment is less effective when it’s involuntary. They also say forcing people into treatment is a violation of civil rights.

"Whenever a bill that is controversial passes, there should be ample discussion," Jacobs said. "In this particular case, there were ample rumors and threats of lawsuits."

But Nick Wilcox, Laura’s father, said those barriers might be coming down. He noted that two counties on the opposite sides of the political spectrum - traditionally conservative Orange County, and more progressive San Francisco County - both adopted the law this year.

"By having those counties on board, it makes it easier for all the other counties that fall somewhere in between to consider it," Wilcox said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today approved a three-year plan for its Mental Health Services Act money. Included in that was funding for the county's expansion of Laura's Law. It had run a voluntary pilot of the program for several years.

The county already has a full implementation plan for the program, so the next steps are to hire staff and augment and service contracts, Shaner said. He's hoping to have to program up and running within a few months.